The mysteries of the Arctic have captivated explorers and mapmakers for centuries, as Europeans searched for northern sea routes to Asia.

The blending of myth and fact in the maps below represent our evolving understanding of the Arctic.

Gerardus Mercator's 1595 map was among the first to indicate an all-water route across the top of North America. Click here to view a larger version.

1. Mercator, 1595

This map, drawn by Flemish cartographer Mercator, was among the first to indicate an all-water route across the top of North America. An enormous magnetic rock encircled by four islands forms the North Pole. At the time, many people believed that the waters between the islands flowed northward into the centre of the Earth.

This 1599 map by Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz mapped Spitbergen for the first time. It’s labelled here as Het Nieuwe Land, which is Dutch for “the new land.”

2. Barentsz, 1599

This 1599 map by Dutch navigator Willem Barentsz shows Spitsbergen — the main island in Norway's Svalbard archipelago — mapped for the first time. Labelled as Het Nieuwe Land, meaning “the new land” in Dutch, the Arctic island had been forgotten since its discovery by the Vikings 400 years prior to Barentsz's arrival. The Barents Sea north of Norway and Russia was named after the explorer.

This map of the North Pole was published by Moses Pitt in the English Atlas, Volume 1, number 3. Visit the Toronto Public Library to view a larger version.

3. Pitt, 1680

Published in the English Atlas by Moses Pitt, this North Pole map shows northern Canada in more detail than the first two — but a lot is still missing. Everything west of Baffin's Bay and Hudson's Bay was still unknown to the European explorers. Notice the depictions of Inuit culture and whaling along the top of the map, as well as the inset of Nova Zembla. Explorers took interest in the Russian island while searching for the Northeast Passage.

Jesuit cartographer Heinrich Scherer drew this decorative circumpolar map, which was published in 1702.

4. Scherer, 1702

Heinrich Scherer, a Jesuit cartographer from Germany, held on to the hope of a Northwest Passage via Hudson's Bay, though there had not been any major expeditions to the Canadian Arctic since the 1630s to provide more detail. His decorative map included the mythical island, Frisland.

Large areas remain blank in this 1715 map by Dutch cartographer Frederick de Wit, which is decorated with scenes from the whaling industry. Image: Library and Archives Canada

5. de Wit, 1715

Large areas remain blank in this 1715 map by Dutch cartographer Frederick de Wit, which is decorated with scenes from the whaling industry.

This 1772 map of northwestern North America, by the Robert de Vaugondy family of mapmakers, shows a mythical location of the Northwest Passage.

6. Vaugondy & Diderot, 1772

The French Robert de Vaugondy family of mapmakers prepared this map of northwestern North America in 1772 as a supplement to Diderot's Encyclopédie. The map depicts a mythical Northwest Passage.

Scottish cartographer John Thomson left out the possibility of a Northwest Passage in his 1814 map of the northern hemisphere. Click here to view a larger version of this detailed map.

7. Thomson, 1814

Scottish cartographer John Thomson removed the possibility of a Northwest Passage from his 1814 map of the northern hemisphere. The hand-coloured map shows immense political and geographical detail around the hemisphere, with the exception of the Canadian Arctic. Notice how the Thomson has placed emphasis on detail and accuracy rather than the decorative elements of earlier maps.

Arctic explorer William Parry drew this map based his 1818-1820 expedition to find the Northwest Passage. The expedition reached as far as Melville Island, where the crew was iced in for 10 months.

8. Parry, 1820

Arctic explorer William Parry's 1820 map shows the route his expedition took in the quest to find a Northwest Passage. The expedition reached as far as Melville Island (shown on the left of the map), where the crew was iced in for 10 months. The Parry Channel, a natural waterway through the Canadian Arctic, was named for Parry.

Édouard Riou’s 1866 map of northern Canada and Greenland was published in Jules Verne's novel Journeys and Adventures of Captain Hatteras. Click here to see a larger version.

9. Riou, 1866

This 1866 map of northern Canada and Greenland was published by the French author Jules Verne in his novel Journeys and Adventures of Captain Hatteras. Known as a father of the science fiction genre, Verne is best known for his novels Around the World in Eighty Days and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

Edward Stanford’s 1876 circumpolar map shows a well-defined Arctic coastline. Areas of known sea ice are shown in light blue. Image: Library and Archives Canada

10. Stanford, 1876

Edward Stanford’s 1876 circumpolar map shows a well-defined Arctic coastline. The English cartographer and businessman coloured known sea ice light blue. He left the unexplored areas white. By 1880, the British government had given up on the hope of using the Northwest Passage as a shipping route and transferred sovereignty of the Arctic islands to Canada.

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